What’s behind British move not to impose Brexit checks on goods from Ireland?

UK’s move was not sought by either the EU or the Irish government

An announcement by Britain's Brexit minister David Frost this week that his country would waive all checks on goods arriving from the island of Ireland "until further notice" has baffled officials in Dublin and Brussels.

It has raised once again an eternal question about the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson: do its acts reflect incompetence or is it all a grand plan?

Frost announced the measure as a “pragmatic act of goodwill can help to maintain space for continued negotiations on the Protocol”.

It was presented as a kind of olive branch as negotiations continue between UK and EU officials on how to tweak Northern Ireland post-Brexit arrangements to remove friction.


But the step was not something that had been sought by either the EU or Dublin. On the contrary, the Irish government had been spending significant money and effort on an information campaign to tell its exporters to Britain to get ready and prepare for the impending checks. To Dublin, it came as a puzzling surprise.

It was one thing for Britain to announce such a thing for Northern Ireland, but extending it to the entire island of Ireland was peculiar.

Irish advantage

It means that the Republic’s exporters to Britain have an advantage compared to their domestic UK counterparts sending produce the other way, who are subject to full checks at Dublin port.

Other EU exporters to Britain who deliver their produce through connections to the continent, like Calais, will also have the same comparative disadvantage compared to those in the Republic.

The theory in circulation is that British customs were simply not prepared to handle the level of incoming Irish agricultural goods.

Officials from EU countries who have been co-ordinating with their British counterparts on customs have the impression that customs preparations in the UK are still drastically behind the level needed for the post-Brexit reality.

It required the construction of a new digital system to process UK imports, IPAFFS, to replace the EU’s TRACES.

EU checks came into force for British traders on day one: January 1st, 2021. But the UK government chose to gradually begin implementing checks on goods from the EU in phases throughout the year.

This plan was then pushed back further: because border posts were not ready, the UK government was forced to push back the implementation further until January 1st, 2022.

There are questions about whether the move to exempt Ireland from customs checks outright, until further notice, will pass muster at the World Trade Organisation.

Whisper it, but under the most-favoured-nation principle, “countries cannot normally discriminate between their trading partners”.

“Grant someone a special favour (such as a lower customs duty rate for one of their products),” the WTO explains. “And you have to do the same for all other WTO members.”